Stained clock faces with bent hands hung on the to-do wall. There were black cast-iron barrels full of 5-cent odds and ends, though at least one must have served as a wastebasket. The only source of light were bright LED bulbs that hung from elegantly retrofitted Victorian chandeliers and wall scones. Dusty posters of obscure and just plain awful films suffocated the varnished mahogany.
A lab coat was carefully folded over the back of an efficient Scandinavian chair by the door. This must belong to the good doctor, I thought. Hanging over a broken-in workbench under a blackened window was a corroded fume hood; thick ionic smoke wafted up into it. Pausing hesitantly to wipe his bald head, Doctor Angus McGriddle of the San Serriffe Font Foundry labored away on his latest calligraphic robo-strosity.
“They say you make a pretty mean killer robot.”
McGriddle flinched, then grabbed his hand. Thankfully the thick work glove absorbed most of the diamond cutter’s brunt. “How did you get in here?”
“I checked myself in,” I grinned, showing him the library card I’d won off Hermann Zapf. “Now, shall we rock or shall we roll?”
He flipped the diamond cutter to off mode nonchalantly. Bushy eyebrows connected thoughtfully over his protective goggles, and I briefly wondered whether he had laser vision.
“Look kid, I don’t know what that loon told you. Angus McGriddle doesn’t do pro bono.”
“Naturally we’d be willing to compensate you for you trouble,” I purred, opening a crate of plastic eggs behind me. “This is just the down payment. You’ll get the rest later.”
“No deal. We moved off the plastic egg standard when General Pica was hung by his pinkies from the palace walls.”
“Then what? Liposuction?”
“No! This is all muscle!” he resolutely resisted, manhandling his love handles. “I want revenge against McDonald’s. After their McGriddle breakfast sandwiches came out, I had to stop selling the McGriddle 2000™—something I’d spent the better part of the last decade developing.”
“What was the McGriddle 2000™?”
“Highly concentrated pancake-sized chlorine tablets. A single puck could kill an African elephant. The lawsuit would’ve forced me to make them unscented, take the word ‘flavor’ off the packaging, and stop advertising using cartoon characters. I refused.”
“I remember those! They were delicious!”
Jalas’ leafy voice tore through the laboratory. “Exactly. So they did the only thing they could: embrace, extend, extinguish.” She swung down from the chandelier, bouncing off the chemical hood and landing gracefully on a small stack of MAD magazines.
“Have you spies everywhere?” McGriddle croaked.
“Jalas, I’m videoconferencing in person. What gives, yo?”
“Navens are raiding the Foundry.”
Even though I couldn’t remember ordering my henchmen to raid the facility, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that some higher power had acted on my behalf.
“Do they claim to have received a divine missive?”
“They claim they haven’t eaten since our airship took on several thousand refugees—I mean, displaced persons—so I sent them on a... fact-finding mission. They got past the Foundry’s high-tech security system in under ten minutes.”
“Implausible! I designed that security system—with my bare hands,” Angus anguished. “What about the sonic turrets outside the cafeteria?”
Jalas donned her most sympathetic game face. “I’m afraid the Chef’s Special today is Lasagna with a side of shrapnel.”
“Sweet Electron of the Rubicon! Why? Why?!” he asked feebly, teetering backwards over the workbench. “That lasagna could have been yours.”
“We’re merely taking what we need to survive; you should appreciate that, having been cast to the sidewalk yourself. Join us,” I offered. My hand hyperextended in a magnanimous display of contortionism. “Let’s build that robotic hover-bridge to the 21st century.”
“It already is the 21st century,” the decorated doctor demonstrated, diligently drilling his diabolical day-planner.
“Then we’re almost eight years behind schedule. Look, you want to sell chlorine tablets outside restaurants? I can make it happen. You want to poison African elephants? I can do that, too.”
“African elephants were only a metric, I have nothing against the gentle giants.”
My second-in-command unsheathed a broadsword with the head of a chameleon for a hilt. “I’m going to go stop all the looting and violence now.”
“Bring me back a liver,” I urged laboriously. “Now, Angus-”
“Doctor McGriddle, please.”
A silence overtook the room following Jalas’ departure. I felt I could finally strike a deal with the amorphous substrate.
“Caramel apple?” I held out a tray.
“I’m going to want more than that. Like I said, Angus McGriddle don’t work for free. You want Angus McGriddle? You want a giant robot?” He threw down his gloves. There were four gnarled fingers on one hand, and six on the other. “It’s going to cost you.”
“No problem! We recently robbed a bank, and have about ten times that much!”
“I never... mentioned a number...”
“Fine. You can have the crate,” I conceded, passing him the large box of plastic eggs. They were clearly well aged, and some Serriffian collectors would surly still find them valuable.
My eyes wondered around the old scientist’s room. There was a rack up against one wall, several shelves, full of action figures and masks. Photos of celebrities shaking hands with various people, and several of Ronald Reagan with the eyes cut out. There was no carpeting (this was a workroom, after all) and a double helix scar etched deep into the concrete. What from, I could only speculate.
“You enjoy working here, don’t you, Angus?”
“It keeps me busy.”
“Would you like to work on some of the bigger budget stuff?”
“I’m already the lead roboticist...”
“Work for me and I’ll make you the lead roboticist of the entire Earth,” my cape flapped behind me. “Or turn from me, and I’ll feed you to my pet hydra.”
“With friends like you, who needs anemones?”
“That’s a good one, doc,” I affirmed as he packed a ratty old suitcase. “Keep up the puns... you stuffed pig.”
“I said ‘puffed jig!’ We’re gonna do a puffed jig when we get back to Skylair One!”
“That’s a pretty swanky killer robot.”
“It’s mostly cardboard and newspapers.”
Angus was competitively humble. In truth, the automaton was so huge that he could only work on the head onboard. The rest of the body would have to be completed at the Foundry by unskilled laborers.
“Is it going to cost a lot to get the body completed? We’ve got a lot of people working overtime.”
“Don’t worry, lad. There’re no labor laws on San Serriffe. About two years ago, the leader of the Labor Party, Antonio Bourgeois, was asked by a rookie journalist during a routine interview if he was in Labor. When Bourgeois said ‘yes,’ the reporter asked how far apart the contractions were. That was the day the labor movement died.”
“Aren’t most of San Serriffe’s workers pregnant women?”
“Politics be a strange art,” McGriddle gritted, squeezing the blowtorch handle. “Finito!”
“The head part of it, anyway. It still needs the body for power and awesomeness.”
Featureless and rational in every respect, the face basked in our pride. Its eyeballs were cannons, the nose shot heat-seeking missiles, and the mouth could projectile vomit burning oil. Surely, this was the pinnacle of form, the apex of function, the convergence of everything simple and beautiful and evil and good.
“Put some flaws in so people will have a reason to buy a new one in five years.”